Indian Forest Act
Why in news?
MoEF&CC released a draft of the comprehensive amendments to the Indian Forest Act1927. However, the amendments have been criticized as an attempt by the Centre to grab natural resources owned by tribals.
Indian Forest Act 1927
- Britishers imposed the Indian Forest Act, 1927 to take over Indian forests, use them to produce timber, while curtailing and extinguishing rights of millions.
- The Act empowered the Government and the Forest Department to create Reserved Forests.
- It defines forest offenses, acts prohibited inside a Reserved Forest and penalties on violation of provisions.
- The law has been criticized for years for providing immense discretion and powers to the forest bureaucracy.
- Forest officials could govern areas declared as forestlands and hence arrest and prosecute forest-dwellers.
Key features of Indian Forest act 2019 amendments
- It defines community as a group of persons (specified according to the government records) living in a specific area and jointly possesses/enjoy common property resources, irrespective of race, religion, caste, language, and culture.
- Forest is defined to include, “any government or private or institutional land recorded or notified as forest/forest land, the lands managed by government/community as forest and mangroves, and also any land which the central or state government may by notification declare to be forest for the purpose of this Act.
- It shifts focus from transport and taxation of forest produce to conservation, enrichment and sustainable management of forest resources and related matters.
- If the state government feels that the rights under Forest Rights Act will affect conservation initiatives, the state may affect such rights by providing compensation or provide some other forest land of sufficient extent in a reasonable locality to the forest-dwelling communities.
- The draft introduces a new category of forests- production forests for the purpose of production of timber, pulp, pulpwood, firewood, non-timber forest produce, medicinal plants or any forest species in order to increase production in the country for a certain period.
- Some offenses that were earlier bailable have been proposed to be made non-bailable.
- Responsibility of proving innocence in many cases has been left on the accused. The accused has to prove that s/he is in lawful possession of forest land, forest produce, and has not committed any offense against the Act.
- The draft law also proposes to provide immunity to Forest-officer using arms, etc. from legal actions in order to prevent the forest offense.
- The colonial provision of collective punishment of community for crimes committed by individual/s under the forest law has been retained.
- State Government/UT Administration shall provide essential articles for holding the accused(s), armories, safe custody of arms, ammunition, etc.
- It strengthens the idea of bureaucratic control of forests by providing immunity for actions like the use of firearms by officers to prevent an offense.
- The hard-line policing approach is reflected in the focus on creating an infrastructure to detain and transport the accused and to penalize whole communities by denial of access to forests for offenses committed by individuals.
- Such provisions affect poor inhabitants and run against the empowering and egalitarian goals under the Act.
- The empowerment of forest bureaucracy may alienate tribals and also fuel left-wing extremism.
- The provision that the state governments could take away the rights of the forest dwellers in the name of conservation efforts is just arbitrary and running counter to the objectives of the Forest Rights Act.
- The draft law doesn’t address
- Independent scientific evaluation of forest health and biodiversity conservation outcomes.
- Diversion of forests for destructive activities.
- EIA reports that are not taken seriously and diluted the public hearings process.
Arguments in favor
- Forest officials remain the sole face of administration over these vast difficult-to-access terrains.
- They have the difficult responsibility of retaining the quality and extent of forest cover.
- This becomes particularly challenging due to high population pressure and development activities.
- It is in this context that the Centre proposes to increase forest officials’ police powers and capacities over forestlands.
Way forward: Forest Act 1927
- According to the State of Forest Report 2017 by MoEFCC, only 2.99% of India’s geographic area is classified as a very dense forest is a concern. Hence, all suitable landscapes should be recognized as forests and be insulated from commercial exploitation.
- The new law should expand India’s forests and ensure the well- being of traditional forest-dwellers and biodiversity in these landscapes. Therefore, a community-led, scientifically proven conservation should happen in order to reduce conflicts, incentivize tribals and stop diversion of forests for non-forest purposes.
The center must consult all stakeholders and communities including independent scientific experts to ensure that the law is adopted by all states, including those that have their own versions of the existing act.